Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Shailen Bhatt refers to himself as an optimistic kind of guy, so in that spirit, he noted that the state’s transportation projects will be funded to the tune of $1.88 billion this year.
“That is my glass-is-half-full statement,” said Bhatt during a brief visit to Eagle County on Tuesday afternoon.
Bhatt said nearly $2 billion sounds like a huge pot of money, but in reality, Colorado has more than $20 billion worth of infrastructure needs.
“$1.88 billion is a pretty small amount of peanut butter, and it’s a pretty big piece of toast,” Bhatt said.
Bhatt, along with other CDOT officials, dropped by several Colorado communities to discuss transportation needs and projects as a part of CDOT’s Infrastructure Week. Tuesday morning, he was in Pueblo talking about how some of the original Interstate 25 infrastructure, still in service in the community, needs to be updated and replaced. By noon, he had traveled to Eagle County, where he was touting the proposed Interstate 70 West Vail Pass Auxiliary Lanes proposal.
‘A great upgrade’
The I-70 auxiliary lane proposal is CDOT’s preferred alternative for eastbound and westbound travel along Vail Pass from mile marker 180 to mile marker 190.
“Available crash data shows that the west side of Vail Pass experiences a higher-than-expected number of crashes,” noted a CDOT fact sheet. “Differential speed between cars and trucks on the steep grades leads to safety concerns.”
CDOT has proposed completing an environmental assessment and definition of the improvements for the entire project area. Based on the assessment and available funding, the proposal could be phased.
In his remarks Tuesday, Bhatt said the project will likely cost between $300 million and $400 million.
According to CDOT, the project benefits would include:
• Improving safety along the I-70 corridor by providing an auxiliary lane for slower-moving vehicles.
• Boosting economic vitality by providing a continuous connection between the Front Range and the mountain tourism industry.
• Improving safety and quality of the Vail Pass bike path.
Captain Dick Duran, of the Colorado State Patrol, said the western side of Vail Pass presents one of the worst accident challenges along Colorado’s I-70 corridor. He said the additional traffic lane would be “a great upgrade.”
“A third lane would be extremely beneficial to getting the traffic moving up there,” Duran said.
Continuously moving traffic along Vail Pass is sometimes a difficult goal to achieve. CDOT’s own data shows that I-70 over Vail Pass was closed for more than 177 hours in 2016, primarily due to crashes and weather.
Those closures aren’t popular with the public, and the practice drew an inquiry during Tuesday’s visit.
“CDOT’s goals are to save lives and make people’s lives easier,” Bhatt said. He commended the state workers who maintain Vail Pass and respond to accidents along the challenging stretch.
“When someone is on the radio saying it isn’t safe to drive out there, that’s when our people go to work,” Bhatt said.
Bhatt also responded to an inquiry about how Colorado can increase its infrastructure funding. He said the state has the 12th lowest gas tax in the nation.
By way of comparison, Bhatt said Utah charges 29 cents per gallon for fuel tax, while Colorado charges 23 cents per gallon. He said the two states have roughly equal transportation infrastructure budgets, even though Utah’s system is roughly half the scope of Colorado’s.
“You get what you pay for,” Bhatt said. “To me, it’s a function of investment equals outcome.”